Monday, May 22, 2017

Dungeon Romp - Warhammer Quest Silver Tower Review

Silver Tower is, well, as the title suggests, a bit of a romp. It's certainly in the tradition of a dungeon crawl, but simple and easy enough that it's a very casual experience.



Foreword
Okay, so, admitting biases here. What I was expecting when I went into this game was high production values, a fair bit of random events, sprawling options, probably a bit of inherent or randomness-based imbalance, rules that had some balance and clarity issues and a lot of colorful language or names, and something reflecting the original Warhammer Quest, which as far as I understood pretty much was a gold standard to compare other games to, though I've never played the original Warhammer Quest, Hero Quest, or Space Crusade, or any other in GW's older dungeon crawl line, so don't have a concrete reference point in those.

Space Hulk is the best game I think Games Workshop has ever put out, so I'll similarly at least recognize the bias when comparing it to another modular crawl of a small force through corridors. In general, I've enjoyed their skirmish-scale games (like Necromunda) more than their army-scale ones.

Also, I expect that my current favorite game, Kingdom Death, will color my judgement in being another fantasy combat co-op though I'll try to recognize this so as to not judge everything else too harshly ("well, it's not my favorite, so it sucks").

Finally, I don't really like the Age of Sigmar IP. I grew up with Warhammer Fantasy Battle on the periphery of my experience (mostly a 40k and Mordheim player), so that and generic fantasy stuff are a better reference point for me. So, sorry in advance if my reference to a Games Workshop™ Age of Sigmar™ Fyreslayer™ Doomseeker instead as a Dwarf (or similar cases) causes any confusion. But, I like the concept and aesthetics enough in this game, and have recently found a love of well-made co-ops, so I wanted to give it a try.


Materials
So, this was a section I was one I'd expected to breeze through with a "yeah, everyone knows Games Workshop makes nice toys" sort of statement. But I can't, which was quite a surprise.

The two identical baddie sprues had broken in the same place, indicating a design flaw rather than a packing flaw, and two of the unique characters had pieces broken off which I never located. All of these indicate overly-thin parts. The models are very nice (except for the grotesque exaggeration of muscles on the Acolytes and Dwarf) in general, though. They have little nubs to guide how parts fit together, and, for the board gaming crowd, GW uses HIPS plastic, which means that a sharp knife and plastic cement (not plastic glue or super glue) are the tools you need to build these, with flat clippers and a cutting board as bonus, and they're not snap fit.

The instructions were about 90% good, with a few steps that were confusing, and they mislabeled a base size, which was irritating but not hugely relevant (since the game is grid-based and everything occupies one square).

The tiles are nice, not embossed like the Space Hulk or Overkill ones, but still colorful and durable, on thick card.

The cards are, however... not nice. These were a major disappointment. They get scarred extremely easily, where I'm very familiar with handling board game components, and it took all of a short session of play for just about every paper component to show damage. I have no idea why the surface is so soft, but everything gets weird little dings. Furthermore, it's the thinnest card stock I've seen a major company put out- having published my own small game, there were some basic standards I learned to look for in print stock, and GW's have none of the durability I managed, let alone what a big-name company should have.

Not only this, but the cards are all strange sizes, meaning they're not easily sleeved.

The rule books were similarly made of rather poor quality materials- mine were heavily damaged when I got them and, while I got a replacement, I won't be using it until my damaged one has gotten too bad for me, since I'm suspicious of its durability, too.

A note on painting.

There are a few models where, despite nice details and good recesses, the models are still a complete chore to paint. Especially the Tzaangors (beastmen) have a ton of fine trim, that means you're talking about either a very basic or a very time-consuming paint job. For a company that focuses so heavily on miniatures design and that this is positioned as likely an introductory product (a boxed game that also appeals to board gamers, sold by a company that's usually positioned as an industry gateway), I thought that there were a number of models that weren't thought through very well. Same applies to some of the extra-thin parts that could cause problems for the less-dexterous of gamers.

Rules (not to be confused with gameplay, below)
The flow of the rulebook is pretty intuitive- it leads you from the flavorful introduction of the setting, through setup and turn structure, while introducing mechanics, and the first scenario, in an organic fashion, and adding page numbers referencing more advanced rules. While it doesn't have a glossary, it's simple enough, and short enough, that it doesn't really need one. The layout is very open, pretty aesthetically immersive, and pages are immediately recognizable when looking for something specific.

The second rulebook (also included in the core) mostly contains story events, with a pretty clever system of incorporating them together, which I quite appreciated. (I'll go in to more detail in the gameplay section.)

However, for some bizarre reason, the monsters and expansion heroes don't get cards and only get printed pages, and the 1/3 of the monsters and 2/5 of the heroes which are expansion content are split into the second book. This all makes reference a bit of a chore, since you don't just pull out the relevant cards for who's fighting, but need to flip between the different groups. Also, the book with the table of random enemies that appear isn't the book that contains those enemies, which is counterintuitive and had us constantly looking in the wrong reference book.

As I stated earlier, I was kind of expecting it, but there are a lot of holes in the rules, where GW likes colorful phrasing over, y'know, consistency, clarity, or precision.

Much of the time, this is easy to get past, since it's stuff like, "Well, obviously these two terms are
being used interchangeably" or "Why does X say 'resolve the effect then discard' while y says 'discard and then resolve the effect'?" ... where it doesn't actually matter that it's inconsistent, it's just annoying to someone who's kind of anal, like I am.

Other examples include "What if AI tells a piece to do something it can't?" or "Is this a single event, or an event and its result?" or "Is this action optional?" or "Does this trigger the first time the conditions are met, or every time they are?"

GW also has a confusing compulsion to list multiple rules under a single, flavorful title. I think it makes it look like fewer rules? For example, one model:

Rule 1a: This model regenerates health, (b) also, these are your rewards when you kill it.
Rule 2a: This is how the model moves, (b) this is the consequence of how the model moves.
Rule 3a: This is what happens when you kill the model the first time, (b) and this is how it changes its AI after that.

The boss, after the 100th time he flipped to the wrong section of the wrong book.
When scanning, this is just awful. It makes it extremely easy to overlook things. 2a/b are fine since they're interrelated. 1b should be impossible to scan for without 3a, since they both happen to do with death. And if we're lumping things into combined rules, 1a and 3b are both things that only matter when it's hurt. I think they should be individual rules, but if they're lumped, they should be together.

Now, this sounds admittedly nit-picky, but, it's every damn time, there's no logic and it makes what should be extremely easy a chore. I don't think I've ever had a game where I miss a higher proportion of rules. Notice how I grouped this section so similar things are together? Probably not, because it made sense and wasn't jarring.

...Yes, I am snob, and proud of it.

Errata
Maybe a couple months after publishing the game, GW put out a bunch of errata. Most of it is clarity, but a couple core mechanics saw an overhaul. It was a little irritating that there needed to be so much, so quickly (suggesting either a rush or lack of foresight in game design), but it's only a problem if you're put off by needing to have other reference material- I prefer a corrected game mechanic over a bad one.

Gameplay
With the exception of the problematic rules above, the game is very immersive. It has a ton of fun character, and feels a lot like an oldskool D&D dungeon, with lots of flavorful stuff introducing or describing things.

When you set up a scenario, you'll get an introduction and be instructed to construct a deck of rooms with a given key symbol, and then you shuffle the boss room in with the bottom of the deck. You then set up in the generic starting room, and start exploring.

The rules are pretty streamlined, with stats that are very easy to remember. While I've criticized Age of Sigmar for a lot of things, I have absolutely no problem with relatively simple mechanics- the simplicity makes this game move quite quickly.

Each turn begins with the (rotating) first player rolling five fate dice- doubles are removed and usually generate a special event, and the rest of the dice become part of a collective action point (AP) pool.

Players roll their personal action dice, the quantity of which is based on their remaining health,
and then take their turn in sequence, with the option to delay. The values on the dice are used to make a number of actions, where a simple action (walking or a mediocre attack) will be available on a 1+, i.e. any spent die will allow you to take the action, while a powerful attack, like one that causes more damage or affects an area, might only be available on a 6+. Each time a player draws from the collective fate dice pool, they're barred from using another die, so it's unlikely for someone to be able to glory hog it by going first.

As you explore, you'll enter new rooms, and read a fun, often kinda' sizeable, paragraph introducing the room, which usually comes with an event or special condition (this room gives you a small buff or penalty in the fight; the spooky thing freaks your characters out; the trap potentially does damage, you need to solve a simple Zelda-style simple positioning puzzle, etc.) and a random baddie encounter.

I think it's a pretty smart system of cards, which allows given rooms to be used in very different ways, with different special rules and spawn locations in the same layout, which isn't just a generic block of tiles- a room with a pair of crazy machine columns might represent a trap, or locked sarcophagi, for instance. Often, these are paired with fluffy passages either on the cards or referencing specific pages, which add a storytelling feel, and sometimes interesting conditions or objectives. Referencing events also creates an interesting system where consequences can be revealed without foreknowledge or a GM role.

The actual placement of rooms are fairly inconsequential, with a minor amount of strategy in being able to game junctions a bit, but most of the time, it could just as well be a line. This doesn't really take away from the experience, though, since usually you're fighting across a pair of rooms at any given time, and it's more about the skirmishes and any special rules than the layout of your randomized dungeon crawl. Occasionally, you get a bad combination of penalty rooms next to each other, but more often than not, you're looking at pseudo-linked mini encounters. In practice, it means you're dealing with the relevant part of the dungeon, and the chance/revelation element still gives the tactile impression of exploring. (The most substantive layout/exploration I've run across is Betrayal at the House on the Hill, but that was a major mechanic of said game, and Silver Tower's system is still completely fine.)

Combat is straightforward, needing to match a value on a die to hit, which automatically does a (sometimes random) number of wounds, which are removed from the piece's total, until it dies at 0 (or, in the case of heroes, will need to be revived at some point, since heroes never actually die).

Baddies consult a (usually single) d6 table, with occasional modifiers. This relatively simple system works nicely in practice. Most have a few different attack styles: range vs. melee; target wounded or high health; melee or area effect. Bosses tend to have more elaborate or varied options.

The system's a lot of fun, with my only complaint being that baddies tend to die quickly, so very often they don't feel like serious threats, despite it often only taking 2-4 hits to take down a hero.

Difficulty
My group played the first scenario and a half, and found them almost frustratingly easy- you kept being able to kill everything before it had a chance to retaliate in any meaningful way, which meant you could just cruise through the game, barely taking damage.

So, we looked up the difficulty, and found that three players seemed to be ideal, so house ruled a 5+ save (damage prevention, i.e. statistically 1/3 more health, to account for 1/3 more players, since the game doesn't scale). This made the game far more balanced.* We also dramatically reduced healing (normally, it scales per round, we did once per scenario). I completely respect that the game's on the easy side, 'cause it's probably built for a younger audience (or at least to allow one... I assume a decent portion of why the game was made was to play off nostalgia factor for my generation, too), but I expect that a similarly straightforward adjustment that took a few lines could have given varied difficulties of play, for proportionally a lot more replay value, and a whole page of variant options would have been quite welcome, instead of needing to come up with ways to actually achieve a challenge.

Fortunately, unlike Lost Patrol, it's a lot easier to adjust for a more punishing game than a less-punishing one. And, I like the bones of this one far better, so feel it's worth the time. Also, unlike Lost Patrol, this game is co-op, so house ruling is an easier option to agree upon.

Experienced gamers who are used to cooperating will probably find this game very easy, basically a party game in the amount you need to worry about strategy. There is strategy, but it's largely something that's fine if you don't agonize over the perfect choice.

I think this should be a pretty solid game for new gamers: again, the strategy is there, but isn't difficult, and you're playing cooperatively, so disparity in skill/experience isn't very detrimental.

Occasionally, screwing up has led us to some rough fights, and I imagine that the padding involved in an unmodified game would allow newer gamers more regularly make mistakes but not get punished too heavily by them.

Despite the over-all easy level, the actual curve across the campaign is nice-- it goes from a complete romp to, by the end of the campaign, some more serious fights where I'm sure you'd get more punished if you weren't being clever about it.

* I'm not recommending this specific mod as I think it caused some problems with flow, but I'm still going to be playing around with variants regarding a better ability of baddies to get attacks in. One could also play the baddies smarter, but there's a certain point at which you're playing to lose/against yourself, in order to achieve balance, which defeats any sense of victory due to strategy and you're just playing against yourself, so I prefer sweeping house rules.

Hero Balance
Some heroes are just better than others- there are of course varying roles that are harder to quantify but, in several cases, there are characters with nearly-identical roles where it's much easier to tell how balanced they are within that structure. I found it pretty unfortunate in particular because two starting heroes are extremely similar, to the point that they have identical attack stats.

Renown is your XP system. You gain it from getting a finishing blow, and from achieving your character's unique bonus. The system doesn't do an amazing job encouraging teamwork, in that it mostly ends up penalizing the players who're reliant on others if their teammates don't help and, rather than purely rewarding combos, the players who set them up are typically left out. Similarly, it allows for sniping kills. The bonuses are also all over the map; the opportunity and reward just don't make any sense, and like the model roles, there are sometimes characters with equivalent roles and bonuses and one is just much worse. It feels very mechanically arbitrary.

After playing a bit, I don't think it hugely impacts the game (other than feeling unfair at a given moment), because there are effectively level caps between sessions, which means that, while a character who exploded ahead in a dungeon might have a far greater set of options of what to keep for the next session, they won't have more raw power. I'd prefer the check system didn't need to exist, but it's a decent solution.

The experience system, regardless of hero type, is extremely easy to game. In almost any scenario, you could probably grind to be unstoppable, with little risk, since health is easy to recover. This goes back to GW's general(ly problematic) assumption that everyone will immediately play in the spirit of the game, which limits your ability to actually challenge yourself (as opposed to games with tight and difficult rules sets where you might feel accomplished for having devised a cool strategy). Again, this limits the reward for experienced gamers, since it's not that challenging.

I don't like that there are only 18 skill cards. Split across 4 characters who eventually cap at means you get really poor returns later in the campaign, where the last few levels we were mostly just going through the dregs we didn't care for, and there were times where we'd be leveling up without getting anything at all, since we'd expended them. There's nothing here about gaming stuff--it takes some really easy observation to recognize that you'll run out of bonuses near the end, and it's really boring, getting no rewards and before that having no substantive options.

We've gone through a campaign once with just the core heroes (chosen based on taste rather than optimization), but I'm curious how it will work to randomize them from the broader available pool (and its imbalances), where sometimes you'll get a good set, and sometimes you'll work with the mediocre one you've drawn.

Speaking of the plethora of heroes...

Bang for the Proverbial Buck
I think the core game is a solid buy assuming you care about miniatures content- it comes down to around $3/mini, with a fair number of doubles, but also a fair number of very nice character pieces, and good detail and quality all around (minus my above complaints). Regarding replay value, I've felt the game is fully enjoyable with the detail and variety presented, and think the game would warrant a few campaigns, since there's enough randomization and just-plain-fun stuff that I think the structure is more important than the relatively predictable story.

The game also has a lot of variety, which makes it quite good fodder for RPGs, etc. It's more specific than its earlier incarnation (and has more variety but more narrowly thematic models than Shadows Over Hammerhal), but still would make a pretty great kit for any sort of weird magic dungeon.

I think the expansion monsters are also a pretty good ROI- a $40 set gets you 3/4 of the expansion baddies* with another $25 for the remaining type, and of course you can always proxy them or use tokens if you don't care that much about aesthetics. The expansion pack of 4 heroes is also a pretty reasonable value, at $50-ish, which has the rather unfortunate issue of not coming with character cards (these are only on the app or in the rulebook itself).

There are also 2 (de-facto, 3) hero packs that are pretty good deals, assuming you like most of the content. The first set is the set that come in the back of the 2nd book, and comes with no separate cards (requiring a photocopy or awkward stuff with the book). The 2nd does come with cards. There's also Gorechosen, a smaller board game that comes with models that are all useable with Silver Tower, so a pretty good deal if you also want a small multiplayer fighting game (but it doesn't come with ST cards).

* One type only has 2/3 of the necessary ones for a 3-4 player game, but there are enough parts to easily modify a component for the third if you have enough experience to build the models to begin with, and you technically don't need a full compliment of models, since there are rules for not deploying full numbers. The Tzeentch "Start Collecting" package will also score you all of them without need to modify any and with another 10-man unit for fodder or recouping some of the cost.

"Buy All Our Playsets and Toys!"
...And then there are the 30-ish other heroes. This is the point where a lot of my good will about the above reasonable expansions dries up.

These run around $30 each. And some are only available in larger sets. And their rules are not available for free, nor do they come with the models in most cases. You can get them on an app which charges you $1 per hero, some inelegant formatting, and the inability to display multiple heroes at once.

Buying the core game content will currently run you $150 and all printed expansions* will be another $100-200 for a pretty hefty addition (around doubling the options for basic baddies and more than doubling the player models if you get all the packs). But, adding in all the individual pack content will be around $1,000 (yes, thousand, not hundred) more.** And then they have the gall to charge you for some digital rules.

A screencap from the awkward app's buying options, with wince-worthy name of "My Hero" which, alone, may be a reason not to go in on the digital content.

Games Workshop has always been a company that pushes its models' sales pretty hard, but charging you to buy these rudimentary rules (averaging 9 fairly standardized stats; 2 special rules or actions; 2 rarely-used keywords; 1 unique bonus) is, in my opinion, very poor form. The cost for developing and distributing the digital content, for a company as large as theirs, is negligible, and the rules already encourage you to buy their expensive character models, so it feels like nickel-and-diming you rather than the good will they could have very easily accomplished by including some free downloadable content. This is doubly true of packs of 9 rules you can buy to actually use your expansions' keywords. $25 for the majority of the heros' cards printed is, eh, not great for their poor card stock, but at least not insulting.

Despite what GW would like, you can of course re-use models, use generic pawns, use cheap models like Reaper's broad and affordable fantasy line, etc. as substitutes for their prescribed miniatures, including the 4 additional hero and baddie options in the core and 40+ expansion hero options.*** So, this really just makes this game absolutely terrible for any completionist-style collector, though $31 for a very basic hero is still a very poor value, even if you're just buying a few favorites, and using other models is a workaround rather than a provided option, the same way I acknowledge that house rules can improve something, but that still doesn't mean it's without fault.

* Shadows Over Hammerhal recently came out, not sure what I think about it as an "expansion," but, either way, this list is growing since at very least GW looks set to continue releasing rules for their single characters.

** So that kind of pricey game now costs easily 10-20x the price of many perfectly solid games. Or costs the same amount as a copy of Kingdom Death (AFAIK, the high bar of most expensive game around) and most of its first dozen major expansions which would include a similar number of models, several much larger ones, vastly more mechanical components, and an immensely broader and deeper rules set.

*** Well, technically excepting their White Dwarf- link to an earlier, short rant.

Replay value
There are very few parts that are particularly revealing hidden elements, and a lot of it's random generation/events. I think that it has a pretty good spread of scenarios and models one can add, so I think variety lends itself to replay. The difficulty is low, so you're not really looking at a learning curve, so as long as you're not looking at it that way, I think it has reasonably strong replay value.


Recommendation
The game becomes boringly easy (at least for a group of somewhat-to-very experienced players) without modifying things, after even a scenario or two.  It's easy to modify considering there are simple mechanics and it's co-op so you're probably not unbalancing the game for anyone's enjoyment, but if you're hard-line against house rules, and a veteran player, this should be right out- you might enjoy it if a friend owns it, but I'd bet against it being a keeper.

Having gotten that out of the way, I was pretty pleased with this game. I think it's worthwhile if you're looking for a light-weight dungeon crawl. I think they're trying to sell it as a much larger collection, but that the core stands alone perfectly well, and that (plus any content that particularly strikes your fancy) is pretty rewarding. It's tactile, narrative, occasionally goofy, occasionally things swing against you and things become a little rougher. It's kind of strange to me, as I usually like combos and strategy, but what it comes down to is that, for whatever not-quite-tangible combination I've attempted to describe, it's just a fun game. This is probably the easiest game that I like. I don't think it's epic, or some masterwork, but if the feel I've described (with the - I'm repeating myself - caveat that either it's very easy or you'll need to house rule things) sounds right to you, I'd recommend it.

So, as I was writing this, I kept struggling with what it was that I liked about this game, and had, in at least a couple drafts come to some (lazy, or at least uninspired) "greater than the sum of its parts" or "x-factor" statement. But, this is wrong. What I realized was, other than my complaints (which definitely add up to an imperfect game), this game is strong as a fun, simple, and somewhat narrative experience. Combat and movement are intuitively simple. The random action set doesn't feel like a burden (*cough* MYTH *cough, cough*). The exploration system actually does a great job streamlining all of what feels like exploration without the burden of structure or repetition. The random and narrative events, despite a kind of forced tone, are nicely immersive. I feel this is easily 90% of the way to an awesome game, and if you can tolerate or circumvent its problems, it's still a solid one.